Last week, I picked apart and analyzed the performance of the Hurricanes defense corps and talked about the reasons why they struggled. One of the conclusions I came to was that the Hurricanes had too many third-pairing defensemen on their roster and not enough guys who could handle top-four minutes without getting hammered at even strength. The other problem that some have pointed to is that their defense corps was over-populated with puck-movers and didn't have another big, physical crease-clearing defenseman to compliment Tim Gleason and make life tough for opposing forwards.
It's not a false statement, but is having a lot of defensemen who are capable of moving the puck really that big of a problem? Think of it this way, you win hockey games by being able to control possession, create offense and scoring more goals than the opposition and puck-moving defensemen can help with this. The problem with the Hurricanes set-up wasn't that they had lot of puck-movers, it was that they couldn't keep up with opposing team's top forwards (McBain & Corvo in particular) and would be third-pairing guys on a contending team. Had they signed a "crease-clearer" like Greg Zanon or kept Bryan Allen, they would have likely had the same issues because, as we saw this year, these two are nothing more than third-pairing defensemen who struggle when having to go up against more skilled forwards.
Something that was claimed to be "missed" from the Hurricanes defense this season was their willingness block shots and play tougher in their own zone. Shot blocking is a skill that I value but it's something that I feel is vastly overrated by fans and the mainstream media. Whenever a defenseman gets in the way of an opposing shot, they are usually lauded for their toughness and sacrificing their body for their team's benefit. Blocked shots are also a real-time stat that's counted for in every area and are often pointed to as a way to see which team is performing better defensively. However, blocking shots usually isn't the best way to judge defensive play.
Think of it this way, if a defenseman blocks eight shots in a game, it means that the opposing team had possession in his zone long enough to attempt at least eight shots in approximately 15-20 minutes of ice time. If the opposing team has the puck 70% of the time when this defenseman is on the ice, it doesn't say a lot of good about his defensive play because he can't keep the puck out of his zone and his one redeeming asset is that he gets in the way of shots but that can only do so much for him if he can't clear the puck or get it out of his zone cleanly. Hence why blocking a lot of shots can be a misleading measurement of defensive play.
This isn't to say that blocking shots equates to poor defensive play because there is value in blocking shots and it puts a lot less stress on the goaltenders if their defense can help them out by getting in the way of pucks. It's just that teams who are constantly trapped in their own zone and have to scramble to block shots all the time probably aren't as good of a defensive team as one that denies the opposing team space and prevents shot attempts. This is why I think the blocked shot stat kept by the NHL can be significantly improved by showing the percentage of shots a team or player blocks instead of just the total number of blocked shots.
Derek Zone of Copper & Blue and NHL Numbers unveiled a new stat last year showing each player's even strength blocked shot percentage to help us more effectively gauge the best and worst shot blockers in the NHL by looking what percentage of even strength shot attempts against they blocked. The Hurricanes lost two very good shot blockers in Bryan Allen & Jaroslav Spacek this past year and ended up dropping from 9th to 20th in the NHL in total blocked shots. However, if you look at the percentage of shots the Canes blocked, the team has actually improved.
The Hurricanes blocked fewer total shots than last season, but they also blocked a higher percentage of opposing shots, as well. This means that they actually spent less time in their own zone than they did last season and were a better territorial squad, despite the bad results. Therefore, the Hurricanes blocked shot totals going down wasn't as big of a deal as it could have been. I do find it a little interesting that their blocked shot percentage went up despite losing Allen & Spacek, but I guess this relates to the team giving up fewer shots in general.
So who on the Canes stood out? I'm glad you asked.
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Jay Harrison being at the top of the list ins't a huge surprise because he logs a lot of minutes, is sound positionally and isn't really a great skater, so shot blocking is one of his stronger assets. He did a fine job at blocking shots compared to the rest of the defense corps. Jamie McBain was surprisingly the team's second best shot blocker, which is something that I didn't see coming because that's not something he is known for. What surprises me is that Justin Faulk is last on the list despite being the team's best defenseman in just about every other category. Faulk didn't block a lot of shots in general and was much better at keeping the play in front of him but still, I thought he would rank better.
What about the forwards?
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The Canes didn't have many forwards who blocked shots well with the exception of Tim Brent, who led the pack by a wide margin. It doesn't surprise me since Brent takes a lot of pride in willing to block shots. However, the next name on the list might shock a few people. Jiri Tlusty was actually a very good shot blocker compared ot the rest of the forwards and was on the ice for a lot of shots against. I've mentioned before that the first line's had trouble with controlling play at even strength despite scoring at a high rate, so Tlusty's had to help keep play out of his own end by blocking shots. Not what you'd expect from a top-liner, but he did spend a couple seasons in the bottom-six in the Paul Maurice-era. Maybe that's where he learned his defensive insticts?
As a whole, shot blocking wasn't a huge problem for the Canes this season since they were spending less time in their own zone. Their defensive problems relates more to giving up chances on the rush, transitional play and surrendering odd-man rushes. Getting a crease-clearer whose specialty is blocking shots isn't going to fix that.